Well, we are halfway through the scary “off-season” and so far we are still doing fine. Insert big sigh here… Thanks in large part to generous locals who have continually been supportive of our mission. (Pleasantly) Surprisingly enough, it has been a very busy couple of weeks and I am proud to report that the bourbon recipe has passed through the development stage and into production, and no one is happier than me. Blue corn has been a challenge, but one worthy of undertaking, as I feel confident that the juice was worth the squeeze in this case. The white whiskey recipe has been more elusive… I try to remind everyone waiting patiently, that I’m no master distiller (yet), and am still learning every day (usually from people that know a lot more than me, shout out to John Mckee at Headframe Spirits).
Given this mind frame, I have been doing a lot of shutting up lately. I have embraced this strategy as a whole for a long time, and so have found that the quieter I can be, the better I can listen, and the more I can learn. Lately I have done my best to just close my mouth and open my ears… and really listen to my customers, mentors, and employees. The unfortunate part about this strategy is there isn’t much of a filter, so you better be good at getting constructive criticism, because people like to give it… especially after a few cocktails. That being said, I rather enjoyed the multitude of helpful feedback given, and a delightful amount of Freudian slips encountered. I like to think of them as subconscious sarcasm, and if you know me at all you know I fucking love sarcasm. I also find them to be the most honest representation of opinion, and therefore (usually) the most helpful, or at the very least, the most entertaining. Big thanks to all who offered up their words of wisdom, honest body language (I’ve seen many bad taste faces), and hugs. Thanks for caring enough to help us be the best version of ourself, and accepting our faults along the way. Skol.
Culture is imperative in guiding everyday life decisions. So important in fact, that behavior secondary to culture becomes almost instinctual. It is the quiet voice in our mind that chooses everything from what we buy to how we treat the person pouring our drinks.
I typically try to avoid politically charged topics like the plague. However, recent events have got my mind buzzing and I realized that avoiding the topics are what creates a culture of complacency in the first place. Complacency is dangerous…as evidenced by… I dunno… the entirety of world history perhaps. The powerful shake-up caused by the recent #metoo movement has given me hope that if we can move to rapidly change our culture from one of blaming the victim to one of addressing the behavior, then there is so much to hope for. So, in this tiny blog, I hope I am doing my own small part to add to a collection of voices that are working to share knowledge, because knowledge can change beliefs and beliefs form culture. Let’s talk about how we (mis)treat public servants.
This topic arises because so many of my customers at the distillery are also part of the “service industry”. These are the fine folks who serve us meals, protect us from crime, heal us when we are sick, pick up our garbage, and drive us places…just to name a few. Public service jobs account for an incredibly large part of the economy and wonderfully enough… they do things that we either can’t or don’t want to. Hooray! Because I would make a terrible kindergarten teacher… The vast majority of these people are good at their jobs, and genuinely care about their service (a lot of them work for tips so service is tied to paying the mortgage). So, at what point did it become culturally acceptable to treat them like something we stepped in.
I stood behind the counter at the distillery on a recent Saturday night and leaned in to a few stories being exchanged by industry members who were for the time being, enjoying being on the other side of the counter. I was instantly incensed by one story in particular, queuing my own personal horrible flashbacks in service and nursing (mentally competent grown man shits on floor wiping it all over, then demands I clean it up while recording me on his phone…. just to name one.) The part that was most disappointing is that her story was only unique in the details, as many others were able to chime in with an account of their own, or a head nodding in understanding. Everyone deserves to be treated with a basal level of dignity, and having a dirty napkin thrust at you by someone commanding you to wipe off their feet (after spilling on their self) is completely unacceptable.
Right here... in this moment… is where the paradigm sticks for the public service worker, something faced by most of them on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day. The choice is clear, preserve some small shred of your self-worth and address the shitty behavior, or bite your tongue. It is a lose-lose situation and the culture nurtured in the service industry is reliant on appropriate behavior by those receiving the service (not exactly a guarantee). This person can stick up for themselves and risk catching heat from their employer while kissing goodbye any chance for being paid for their service with a tip (and yes, getting paid is exactly what it is, but more on this later)… or they can bend down, wipe up the foot, and die a little inside. Unless of course I’m seated next to this table, in which case there is option #3, have the crazy stranger at the next table tell this person what a complete ass they are being while you look on with equal parts horror and pleasure. Let’s face it, you know that a tip wasn’t happening from them at this point anyways… you might as well get out with dignity intact.
Sadly, this was just one of the few stories with the overwhelming theme of treating public servants like a personal whipping post. We hold monetary compensation over their heads like a guillotine. One perceived slight, one wrong move and poof suddenly tipping becomes optional, and hostile behavior becomes acceptable. Let’s have a quick sidebar about tipping and other etiquette, because as I stated before, knowledge has the power to change beliefs a lot more than just my biased opinion on the matter.
I know I have another blog on this subject, but a lot of that was subjective. Let’s talk about some facts first through a little theoretical conversation.
Fact: Many people in the service industry make less than minimum wage… like… way less… the last server I talked to was making just over $3.00 an hour (I mean what the actual fuck… sorry… sometimes you still get a little opinion with your fact) and they quite literally pay their bills with money made from collected tips.
Refute: Well why don’t you just pay them “living wages”?
Fact: Sounds great, how would like to start paying $40 for that $20 steak? Nah? Didn’t think so. Wages are a massive expense for service businesses, most often, the highest expense of all.
Fact: Tipped employees actually pay taxes on their tips.
Refute: Why should I care, they should pay taxes like everyone else.
Fact: That is super, until someone decides not to tip on a $200 dinner bill. Here’s what happens next. Service industry members are required to self-report all the tips they make. Tips are always looked at by the IRS as a percentage of total sales. At some point, usually between the 8-15% of sales, the IRS accepts the reported tip amounts, anywhere below this, and it’s easy to get flagged for auditing as this is suspiciously low to the IRS. Given this, tipped employees will usually claim a minimum amount even if they do not receive any sort of tip on the sale. The outcome? Your server just claimed $20 in tips that they did not actually make, which means they will pay about $6 in taxes. They literally just paid $6 to serve you while you ate your meal. What… the… hell.
Fact: Not tipping is the same as theft.
Refute: Tipping is optional… I don’t believe in tipping... I don’t tip on “bad” service…
Fact: For some odd reason in this country tipping is still viewed as being customary instead of mandatory. Would you go to the oil express and have your oil changed and then drive away before paying because the attendant was busy and made you wait an extra 5 minutes to fill your tires? No you wouldn’t… because you would have the cops called on you… because it is stealing when you agree to pay for a service and don’t pay…People in the service industry are providing you with a service, and if you don’t recognize the value/ can’t afford this service, then stay home and change your own tires and prepare and serve your own food, because this shit costs money and time, and you don’t work for free, why should someone else have to?
Fact: Service can be good or bad.
Refute: Exactly, and no one should have to pay for bad service.
Refute: You are right, but let’s talk about how the notion of bad service is used inappropriately. What exactly constitutes bad service? Let’s use a restaurant as example. There are a few questions you should be able to ask yourself and deduce if the service is bad due to the fault of the server.
I really hope that someday that the culture of the industry can change, and everyone can be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. We can do better. Until that point, at least I will have plenty of blog material.
Where's the Whiskey? This has become a common mantra uttered at Ethanology. The quick and dirty answer? It’s in the ground. We have been lucky enough to contract with local farms (shout out the the Shooks and Boyers on this one!) to grow the raw materials necessary to make alcohol, and we are getting pretty excited about this year’s harvest. We are fortunate to have proprietary access to the only 90 day blue corn in existence (still not sure how we got so lucky on this one). We are expecting to harvest soon, the wet fall has pushed back our expected harvest in early November by several weeks, which at first bummed me out terribly… however was quickly remediated by the delivery of 1000 lbs of lovely white grape skins out of the blue (yes folks… grappa is in the works… and I feel fairly confident that its fucking delicious).
This is where things get confusing for people, so the purpose of this blog is really to hopefully shed a little light on how whiskey/ey is born and why we don’t have one yet (these things take time). Let’s start with a fun fact, the Federal Government actually makes the rules for defining a whiskey, and has it listed in impossibly small print in several difficult to find and vague locations…shocker, I know. So here it is: Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof). That’s a lot of language to describe a few simple things… again, I know this is shocking from the government. Here’s the most important parts:
These are the three things that all whiskey has in common. Beyond this, the government has at least 41 different delineations to specify everything from bourbon to scotch to straight to blended, these go on to be further separated and classified. Some common differing factors include, length of time in a barrel, what type of wood, and geographic location. For instance, contrary to popular belief, a Scotch Whiskey can absolutely be produced in America… we just can’t call it that, so we settle on a label like “single malt” or one of dozens of other designations.
Given all this information, I am now able to more accurately answer the original question, where’s the whiskey? Once our corn is harvested, I will need time to develop a recipe in order to decide at what proof (remember it just has to be somewhere below 190) things taste best… tasting will be rigorous and exhausting I’m sure… Once this recipe is developed I can create something commonly called “white whiskey”, which depending on the source you ask is not even a real designation. It is called white because the spirit is clear instead of brown. Brown color comes from oak exposure, or added synthetic caramel coloring if you cheat... and yes folks, this happens a lot, it doesn’t even have to be stated on the label in some cases. I can say 100%, for sure, this will never occur at our distillery while I am still sucking air. Next our whiskey will enter a brand new charred American oak barrel, an important distinction if we decide to make this product a true bourbon (along with a few other specifications like distillation proof and mash bill make-up), and it will need to take a nap there for at least 6 months most likely. This designation is mandated by the federal government and helps to protect the integrity of the bourbon industry in America. In addition to this minimum 6 month aging, the intention for this product is to be transferred and finished in our barrels previously used for our distilled honey (is your mouth watering yet). It is highly likely that this will be for at least 2 years (I know, this is a big bummer). However, it will ensure a lot of complexity in the product, and also add another possible designation “straight”. Straight is a type of whiskey that must be aged in uncharred or previously used barrels for a minimum of two years. I can’t say with absolute certainty what the final product designation will be, as my goal is to create the best possible product, not necessarily a product that fits nicely in with narrow definitions.
All this being said, an aged whiskey is at least a toddler away. As a brand new company it is impossible to open with a brown product unless it was purchased from another source and re-branded (which isn’t inherently bad, just sort of crappy if the company brands it as their own) or the distillery was in production long before it was open to the public (possible… but not usually financially feasible). Good things take time... cliché yes, but true. I feel hopeful that this product will be worth the wait.
For the ultimate spirit geeks out there, I encourage you to visit https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter4.pdf ...a great read if you would like to promptly fall asleep, or learn more about the products you are spending your hard earned green on.
So…Michigan’s first ever craft spirit festival happened! Even more exciting is that we were in attendance. Our company seemed to be well received, our booth was busy, and we met a lot of really awesome people. All in all this event was a complete success. So why has it taken me so darn long to write about it?! Well, I would like to say it is because I have been busy, but actually the last few weeks have slowed a bit, which has allowed me to do some human things, like eat three meals a day, shower on a regular basis, and sleep… glorious sleep. The truth is, I haven’t written about it because there was something fundamentally disappointing that I have had trouble shaking.
I have always been bull-headed, my mom is a good testament to this, and because of this I have always wanted to do things that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to do, simply because they existed. Sometimes I succeeded, more often I didn’t, but never in my life before has my gender been a factor that determined my fitness.
This industry has had so many challenges for myself and my husband, and in the past I have suspected that perhaps an unreturned phone call, an unanswered e-mail, or a snide remark may have been largely due to the fact that no one took us seriously. I never stopped to think that maybe they just didn’t take me seriously, a women. Even as I type this my face is screwed up in discomfort and the words come with difficulty. This shouldn’t matter, but the sad fact it… it does.
This was the rotten apple of the spirit festival for me, this one small thing. The fact that I was referred to as “your wife” more often than necessary, that distillation and technical questions were so often fielded to Nick… even after I had just answered another question… even after I was introduced as the company’s distiller. The fact that I was judged more on my mood and delivery of the information I was giving then the content was so disappointing.
This was by no means a uniform experience, I also met several intelligent, good-natured, and incredibly respectful people, and for this I am thankful. I made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. I also suspect I made a few enemies, which is the cost of standing up for what you believe in, and worth it in order to create an industry environment to be proud of. I am thankful for all the other female distillers that have blazed the trail ahead of me, I hope I can keep that trend going and make them proud. I am also thankful for all the men in the industry that I have met that care more about what I put into a bottle, rather than what I’ve got between my legs. All in all, I suspect that this will all work out in my benefit, after all, it’s easy to be surprised by someone you underestimate.
It’s officially bred, born, and bottled, and soon to be enjoyed by the masses, or at least a lucky few in Northern Michigan. I could not be more excited about this product… the vodka is good… the mel is special… but this gin, it is truly great. Ever had a moment where you were like “Oh wow, I wish I could bottle this (insert random moment, scent, feeling, whatever)? This is what Northern Michigan summer in a bottle tastes like. Picture running through the woods fast with your mouth open like a crazy person, and that is what we’ve been lucky enough to capture. Please don’t actually do this for comparison, the woods are full of bugs and pointy objects, just drink the gin instead, it’s the same, I promise.
On another linear note, the release of the gin also means gin martinis, also known as liquid badassery. As a survivor of the rigorous and strenuous process of gin martini development, I feel qualified to share that I’m now nearly James Bond status, but will only bring out my assassin skills if you try to order your martini “shaken, not stirred”. Seriously, cut it out people, part of the magic of gin is its delicate top notes, and you will totally destroy these if you go all earthquake on your martini, unless of course you are drinking shitty gin, in which case you are going to want to up the magnitude.
For all the gin haters (it’s okay, we still love you), I also have great news, now that gin is here that means bourbon is next, and this will be something worth waiting for.
When I was a kid, my mother always told my brother and I, if we were honest and told her about the trouble we got into at school, before the administration did, then the punishment would be less severe. I guess this was her way of promoting honesty, and addressing life's failures upfront. Integrity, fairness and honesty have been imbued in me from an early age.
Thus, I must be up front and honest. I fucked up! Well, sort of.
Six years ago when Geri & I conceptualized the Mel, we had more questions than answers. What would it taste like? What would it look like? What exactly would it be? Both of us had our ideas; our desires for the spirit. I mean, you can't go out and buy a fucking bottle at your local grocer. There are only five distilleries in the world that make this shit, and six years ago we knew of only one.
So... we started to create this product in our heads. We wanted an extraordinary spirt. The color had to be golden, like dripping honey. The mouthfeel had to be viscous; rich. The finish had to be distinct. The flavor? It had to be perfect! We had an idea of what it might taste like. Subtitle almond, vanilla and leather from the barrel, distinct honey & light caramel on the palate. All of which are logical and educated guesses based on the raw material, proof, distillation and maturation methods. To be frank, we were fucking guessing, and hoping.
To be clear, Mel is all of those things. And so much more! Where I went wrong was the marketing of the product. This is where ideation and pragmatic application failed to coalesce. Building a company from the ground up takes a lot of time. One facet is the creation of each product line and the strategic marketing initiative behind each product. How do you want the world to perceive your product?
Naturally, I thought "Fuck (this word percolates in my head often), we don't have a rum, and never will, so let's market it as our rum replacement." This is where everything went off rails.
Mel is nothing like a rum. In fact, it is a discredit to the spirit to compare it to anything. It is nothing like anything you have ever tried. It is Mel Vocatus! It is fucking amazing in every way, and to compare this to any other spirit in the world would be a travesty. However, human beings need a frame of reference. Thus, I ran with the hashtag #TheRumOfTheNorth.
It is its own beautiful, delicate and perfect creation of nature, and Geri's brilliant mind. There are no comparative adjectives, descriptors or superlatives to share. You must experience it on your own.
I will leave you with one thought...
"Your foreign dram is about to be replaced by a local."
Bad news? We haven’t written in a while. Good news? It’s because we’ve been busy as fuck. Our reception in Elk Rapids has been fantastic. We have had an incredible amount of repeat local support and I simply cannot say how grateful Nick and I are for this. The hugs, laughter, and business have been seriously appreciated, and we cannot wait to foster these relationships further and have so much fun (hopefully) for years to come. All this overwhelming positivity aside I have a few bitches that need to be vented for the sake of my sanity.
The parking. Holy mother of pearl, if I have to answer the rhetorical question “you guys have a parking problem here you know” one more time my head might explode. Yes, we have shitty parking and I know this might sound crazy, but we happen in fact, without a doubt, to be aware of this. We did after all put some thought into purchasing a commercial building and starting a business there over the last 6 years. We are unfortunately not rich, and therefore couldn’t afford the “perfect” space (actually it totally didn’t exist for our needs), so instead chose to go with a space where the water quality would be the best for our product. That being said… you got into the building to ask the rhetorical question, so clearly you found parking, walked or biked… you got here. We are working on this problem and have had a plan for over a year, however again… we aren’t loaded and don’t have investors so for the time being we are hoping people will continue being creative. Also, shout out to Elk Rapids Physical Therapy and Fischer Insurance for allowing after hours parking at their spaces, you guys are fucking awesome neighbors and we are so lucky to have you! Cheers.
Not Tipping. People… this is 2017 in America, EVERYONE who has not been raised by wolves knows that tipping is a customary process for service industries. If your service was not satisfactory by all means, the tip is optional, and please let us know so this mistake doesn’t happen again and we can apologize… however, I am here all the time making sure things go well… and my employees are fantastic and bust some serious ass (one of them wearing a pedometer put on over 3 miles behind the bar)… given this information I am fairly certain your service was great, and you are in fact just being a cheap ass. Tip your service, or you can fully expect me or Nick to come directly to you and ask for an explanation (which can prove quite embarrassing), because despite being paid well, our employees deserve every penny of their tips, and we support them 100%.
Blatant assholery. We have received a multitude of reviews, most positive (thanks guys we appreciate the love) some critical (thanks also, we can only get better if we know what we could be doing better), and a few downright mean (fuck right off). I feel the need to address the review recently that called our patrons “baboons” and stated that everyone who comes here has “stolen wealth”. This is completely unacceptable, and you sir must truly be a miserable human being. You don’t have to like my product, my service, or my building, but you will respect the other people that choose to. It’s a shame you spent all your time making assumptions and judgments, if you allowed yourself, you might have had a good time with everyone else. By the way, nice work assuming I don’t live here, I’m local asshole, and my husband was born and raised here (and a 3rd generation local business owner in the area). How sad for you, but if you choose to come back I will gladly accept your apology, give you a hug, and hopefully share some laughs.
So that concludes this public service announcement. I hope it was informational and at least mildly entertaining. I hope everyone is having a fantastic and safe holiday and doing their part to keep the local watershed clean (seriously quit pooping in the lake people)… no one likes poop in their whiskey. Cheers and thanks again so much!
Well, we are open for business. Holy moly, what a crazy, wild, sketchy-ass carnival ride it’s been (the kind that you know is going to be a lot of fun, but you might die on). We made it, all limbs intact, only slightly skinnier and more sarcastic than ever.
Jesus. What a ride. I will tell ya’ I never thought it would be this difficult, mentally and physically. Six years ago, when writing the business plan, and the beginning stages of our branding strategy, I never knew how true our mission statement would prove to be. Most notably the last two sentences.
It has been a long and challenging journey for the Ethanology partnership. For years, we have existed as an island. We wore independence like a badge of honor and proudly and accurately stated “Nobody gave us a damn thing.” I don’t think I have appropriately emphasized what a long journey it has been, perhaps too long for two people to handle on their own. Simply stated, we were running on fumes and needed help.
Bewildering as it is to me, help has come to us mostly where it was least expected. People have showed up on their own precious time for the promise of cheap beer and mediocre pizza to clean, assemble, construct, troubleshoot, educate, and support us. Thank you seems incredibly inadequate, but thank you and free hugs are all we have to give out at the moment. Elk Rapids and the surrounding communities have been so accommodating and kind, I am so grateful to have landed here and I cannot wait to give back.
More good things to come, very soon.
This blog is our journey. Distilled.